Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Big Man passes

Clarence Clemons, the long-time saxophone player for the E Street Band passed away this weekend. Lots of rock and roll bands have had sax players, but few had one more memorable than 'the Big Man'. If you have never listened to the album Born to Run, you should; it is a masterpiece, and the Big Man's solos are among its highlights. The painter Jackson Pollock once said that he painted to express his thoughts, not illustrate them; Clemons's sax solos were the perfect expression of Springsteen's lyrics on that album. The first song on the album, Thunder Road,* ends with a Clemons sax solo that seals the deal offered in the final words of the song: Mary hops in the car and you peel away from a town full of losers.

*Check out this amazing 1978 concert footage of Thunder Road.

When John Lennon was murdered, I was an adolescent, and I couldn't understood why so many baby boomers were so upset. Sure, my early days of listening to music included heavy doses of Beatles songs, as is the case with many kids when they first get a taste for popular music. And I certainly recognized the brilliance of all those Lennon and McCarthy tunes that are still captivating today. Buy by the time I was actively listening to Top 40 radio, Lennon songs like 'Woman' and 'Watching the Wheels' were tired and treacly offerings from a spent force. Fact was, I was simply too young to have appreciated the social significance of Lennon's early solo works, especially the song 'Imagine'. Having not lived through the 1960s, I had no appreciation of the cultural revolution for which Beatles songs and Imagine were anthemic. When Lennon died, my parents' generation were suddenly confronted with the fact that they were middle aged, their cultural revolution was old news, and the hero they had forgotten about was dead.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are rock icons of the post-cultural revolution era, when the dismal economics of the 1970s trumped 1960s idealism. The geography in their classic albums is one of shattered post-industrial cities, populated by unemployed young people, pregnant teenagers, emotionless factory workers, and desperate young men. When he records with the E-Street band in the 1970s, Springsteen's narrators seek and sometimes achieve small slivers of hope, often expressed with a sax solo by the Big Man. When Springsteen's solo album Nebraska appears in 1982, all hope is gone, only desperation and violence remain, and there is no need for a sax. Some of that hope returns in Born in the USA, as does the Big Man.

I discovered the E Street Band albums during a period when, like many teenagers past and present, I was trying to figure out how and where I fit in to teenage society. In retrospect, it wasn't such a hard time; there was really not much going on in my life, I wasn't having to overcome any real challenges, I was simply physically and socially awkward - traits no teenager desires. I spent a lot of time listening to music, but especially The River, Nebraska, Born to Run, and Darkness on the Edge of Town. The songs on those albums introduced me to people and places I could never encounter (nor want to) in my real existence, their problems so much worse than my own teenage anxsts. Listening to their woes chased away my own. When at 16 I started working summer jobs and weekend in factories, I got a taste for how hard Springsteen's blue collar characters worked, how they felt when they came home grimey and exhausted, and learned how I did not want to grow up to be dependent on the whims of the faceless factory owner for my livelihood. At 17, my best friend and I drove to Toronto, twice, to see the E Street Band at the old Exhibition Stadium, driving way too fast down the 401 in my silver Dodge (christened the Ramrod, after the song from The River), a homemade sign reading "Boss Bound" in the rear window, a case of beer stashed in the trunk. Some moments are golden.

The E Street Band remain great entertainers, but their larger relevance in/to popular cultural has long faded. Their half-time appearance in the 2009 Super Bowl reminded me of great albums and concerts of years past, but I suspect many people younger than me groaned "Oh lord, not another bunch of old fogies" (the Super Bowl halftime has also had The Who, the Stones, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney and Sting in recent years). And so it was, I suppose, my personal John Lennon moment when I learned yesterday that Clemons had died, of natural causes. Not to be too melodramatic, but there will be no more E Street music featuring his hopeful sax, and that leaves us all in a town full of losers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent and very useful, I'm going to build one. However, I won't use soup-cans or paint-cans because they can both produce very hazardous fumes, including dioxin, the most toxic substance known to date which comes from burning plastics, including the plastics that line canned food today and paint cans. The heat from combustion will leave those in the environment and/or the people nearby. An old paint can that has been used is also not a good idea for a whole host of other noxious reasons. I might suggest recycling those tins and instead getting some stove-pipe or even some cast-off duct material from a contractor (it is also very cheap at home-depot). That stuff is not coated and is made of galvanized metal and shouldn't produce noxious fumes which would ruin an otherwise good tea-party. Cheers. Mike